Last winter, I attended an annual party put on by a friend's family, in which they gather their four sons (my friend Aaron was number four) and as many of their four sons' acquaintances as can be fit in their home, cooking prodigious quantities of enchiladas and serving prodigious quantities of cognac. That afternoon, while everyone took turns pressing masa flour into tortillas, we discovered an old Macintosh SE/30 in the basement. To our delight, it turned on (after some fiddling) and, lo, documents: school papers, mostly, and some correspondence (including the third son's surprisingly extended and rudely hilarious string of letters to the Dean of Admissions at Case Western Reserve University, demanding accountability for rejecting his application).
We announced our findings instantly through Twitter and text messages; we promised distant friends that the documents would be distributed and preserved, for posterity. Although we did not know it at the time, this was a lie: there was no way to remove the files from their extremely dusty off-white shell. The family owned no printers that could still connect with this computer, and the only way to get data out was by 3.5" floppy.
This discovery entirely changed the tone of our adventure. Once we shut the Mac down (which event approached ever nearer, as table space steadily increased in value) the documents inside would, for all intents and purposes, disappear. Given the age and state of the computer, and the fact that it would be returned immediately to the basement, one might reasonably infer that it would never power up again. At first, we had thought of ourselves as a group of Indiana Joneses, but this turned out to be true only for one scene — the idol would be stolen, the temple would crumble around us.
Is this odd assortment of New Jersey juvenilia so great a loss? Perhaps; perhaps not. I certainly have not kept any school papers, and only very few items of correspondence (and my memory suffers for it — but then, I don't really care to remember much of eighth grade). And, as I have moved from apartment to apartment with such frequency that each relocation is more a bivouac than a home, I have prioritized and romanticized traveling light. The past is, largely, a disappointment; the future is all potential. Who knows what opportunities I could miss if the literal weight of possessions held me in one place? And what's so great about this place to make me want to stay here anyway?
Two years ago, a small boutique about a mile from my apartment closed. I'd never gone in before it posted its liquidation notice — it was mostly jewelry and quirky home decor, targeted at women and other people who decorate their living spaces. But I did go in this time, drawn by fascination with death and the possibility of finding a small gift for a girlfriend (I did: a pair of flats, patterned with hearts and skulls, miraculously in her size) and saw that even the display furniture was for sale, including a wide range of painted wooden cubes, hollow and cubby-like. In my brain, a sudden picture appeared of a modular bookshelf in charmingly chess-like black and white. The next time I relocated, the books would just stay in their boxes. I had never before (and have not since) experienced anything like this shock of furniture inspiration. They were going for five dollars a piece. I purchased seven, and asked the keeper to set them aside while I fetched my car.
The paint is several coats thick, and I don't know what kind of wood is underneath. It feels like plywood or particle board, and I suspect — based on the size-to-weight ratio I discovered when trying to move the seven boxes to the trunk of my car a block away — it has a lead or uranium core. When I actually did change apartments, I found that these cubes, now filled with books, were unequivocally the heaviest and most difficult items to manage, save my mattress and box spring. In the weeks leading up to the next move, my parents appeared with a Nook e-reader as a birthday present.
I went immediately to my collection to see which books I could discard or donate in favor of their electronic counterparts. Certainly not the hardcover set of Shakespeare (Tragedies, Comedies, Histories) of unknown origin and age but obviously quite ancient, with pages of Bible-like thinness. Or the hardcover Complete Shakespeare (Bevington's edition, of course) with which I survived the extremely intensive undergraduate course known on DePauw's campus as "Shakespeare Boot Camp" and charmed some young women with recitations. Certainly not the substantial collection of individually small books I'd gathered across my MFA, many signed by their authors (George Saunders once called me "a prince"). Certainly not the quirky self-helpish beginner's guide to HTML I'd worked through in half-hour segments over a sequence of 5:30s AM before work in my first job out of college, and certainly not the visual dictionary my undergraduate poetry advisor had insisted upon as an essential reference, to know the names of things.
I had not anticipated that going through my library would cause such a sustained string of memories. It was like scrolling through my whole Facebook timeline, but in real life. In the end, I think I found twelve books I could give away. Maybe fifteen.
Of course, the Nook has done much good: I finally read Moby-Dick, which had always intimidated me in physical form. I fetched David Copperfield and Tolstoy's What is Art? and late nineteenth century scholarly texts on the craft of fiction that have been mostly forgotten by modern practitioners (possibly because better works have since been written). And I actually look up words I don't know. But when the Nook goes the way of the Macintosh SE/30, I will surely lose all of this — I will not be diligent enough to copy out long-hand the passages I highlighted with its handy multi-touch function; an arrangement of pixels on some future e-ink screen will not have the same unique place in my memory (which, as was known by the Romans and recently re-demonstrated by science, is both physical and sensory) as a paper page.
Which is not to say that ebooks are evil homunculi, or that they will ruin reading, or that we should shun the secretive demons that carry up non-corporeal pages from the depths of hell to our little screens. Books are impermanent, too: I could, for example, someday lose my Bevington Shakespeare and all of its underlines and (by now embarrassing) marginalia. But computer technology is particularly short-lived, and the conditions of its decay are determined by people for whom our memories are unimportant — or, at least, not as important as increases in market share or advances in computational capability. The brief lifespan of technology is, I think, one of the reasons transient people are drawn to it, but transience is the enemy of memory.
Memory is far more material than many of us, accustomed as we are to watching material things fall apart and be discarded, care to admit. A simple example of this materiality is memory loss associated with concussion; a more complex example is the feeling coming over you when the wind suddenly turns and the faintest raindrop strikes your forehead while a slightly more translucent cloud finds a spot between you and the sun — what is it that makes you stop, full of an emotion like joy and loss? What had you been doing the last time the atmosphere so assembled, that makes your brain connect the two?
It was against the biodegradability of memory that people started writing things in the first place: in stone, the most permanent thing any of them knew about. We traded stone for paper, when paper was invented, because it was easier to produce, easier to reproduce, easier to carry around — this was a wonderful step forward, and the Library at Alexandria burned. And here we are again, with a new technology that makes carrying things around and reproducing them even easier than paper. The results, as with the stone-to-paper shift, have been glorious: more people reading more things more often. After decades of decline in reading habits and book sales, this a beautiful sight indeed.
But this line of thinking pulls us toward societal movement, and I don't care much for that — a google search will give you more writing about the social tectonics shifting under books than you could ever read (ironically, most of this writing exists only in digital form). I care, obviously, about what I will do, as a person with a lot more book-buying and -reading yet in his life and two distinct modes in which to do it.
The answer is that I will do both. Reading is still primarily an interaction between myself and a text, and my Nook makes that easier than ever before, and that ease is valuable. But I am afraid of my own willingness — afraid that by interacting with the same object while reading (instead of a different object for each piece) I am undercutting the physical side of my memory, denying myself material reminders when I know that material reminders are important. I'm also afraid that the transience of the Nook induces me to treat its contents as similarly transient: part of my life for a fleeting moment, then gone into the catacombs of subdirectories whence they came.
For all their copying and printing out, computer files are much less permanent than books. Computer programs are almost always tied to their platform, and platforms change at the whims of their owners and makers, whether for-profit (Windows, Apple, Facebook) or not (Linux, OpenOffice). These changes generally point toward the future — the direction technology is supposed to go — at the expense of the past. If, before enchiladas and cognac, we had managed to get Aaron's files off the SE/30, then what would we have done? None of us had software capable of reading them. And why would we? Who even knows what software that would be? They are, for all intents and purposes, documents written in a dead language.
We save stone-carving, at this point, for the literally monumental. The experience of reading a plaque or a gravestone is so forcefully different for us that we would not think to replace them with e-versions. Paper books are monuments too, in their own quieter way — monuments to quieter things. At the cost of carrying them around with us, from place to place, they offer some small service as markers of various points in our lives. And to weigh convenience too heavily over permanence is to forget why we write books in the first place: because there are parts of ourselves worth keeping.